Musicians sue Artis—Naples over Philharmonic vaccine mandate firings

Three former musicians of the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra have sued Artis—Naples, its parent organization, claiming it illegally fired them for their refusal to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

The suit seeks back wages, unspecified damages and reinstatement to their positions from Artis—Naples. To underscore his final point, the musicians’ lawyer, Horatio (Harry) Mehit on Wednesday filed for an injunction that would prevent Artis-Naples from replacing their posts for the duration of any litigation.

It’s a warning shot, according to Mehit.

When asked for a response, Artis—Naples posted a notice saying it would not comment.

“Just so everyone knows: our clients have dibs on their work. So when we win the case, they intend to come back,” Mehit said. “We would hate for an unsuspecting new recruit to move across the country and settle here,” he continued, only to find out later that their jobs already belong to three other people.

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The three plaintiffs in the lawsuit, all longtime musicians of the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra who were fired on June 30, are:

  • Ashley Leigh, assistant principal and second clarinet, member of the Philharmonic for 17 years
  • Erik Berg, Associate Second Violin and Employee for 32 years
  • James Griffith, violist, who has been with the Naples Philharmonic for 33 years, since the building opened in 1989 as the Philharmonic Center for the Arts

The lawsuit expands its case around federal regulations regarding religious accommodations and Florida law. The three musicians have requested, under federal and state provisions, an exemption from inoculation with a vaccine developed with and/or produced at some point using cells from aborted fetuses. All were refused.

“Artis – Naples’ arbitrary and unnecessary vaccination mandate without exemption has consequently cost the plaintiffs their jobs, disrupted their musical careers and inflicted on them immeasurable pain and suffering, not the least of which is the immense pressure of sacrifice their conscience to feed their families,” the suit says.

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Lawsuit accuses Artis—Naples of intentional maneuvers against musicians

The 55-page lawsuit also paints a picture of an organization that not only denied the musicians’ claims, but intentionally thwarted them. The Artis-Naples administration, he says, overturned an internal judgment in favor of the musicians by reconstituting the committee that approved their requests for religious accommodation along with two other members. One of them was David Filner, vice president of artistic operations.

The new expanded committee subsequently rescinded its accommodation approvals and those of other employees, with the exception of one employee whose accommodation was based on medical reasons.

Artis—Naples only offered them a bye option during the 2021-22 season, which ironically began Nov. 1, the same day Artis—Naples waived vaccine requirements for customers. that could produce negative COVID test results. This leave resulted in a 30% salary reduction for the employees.

This spring, employees had four options:

  • Accept the vaccination and continue as a member of the Philharmonic of Naples.
  • To take a year’s unpaid leave, after which they could return to work, but, again, only if they are vaccinated.
  • Resign and receive a one-year severance package, under gag order: Saying anything denigrating the organization would not only cost them their subsequent dismissal, but the organization would pursue clawbacks of severance packages already paid. All liability rights would also be waived.
  • Termination on June 30.

Employees signaled their intention to challenge the ruling in May, appealing to Mihet of Liberty Counsel, an organization that specializes in fighting Christian religious discrimination lawsuits. But apparently the sides did not reach a dwelling.

“There is no legal defense or excuse for Artis-Naples. They are in open and flagrant violation of a very clear law,” Mihet said.

They may not be the only employees to be sued, according to Mihet, but they are the three he currently represents.

The lawsuit, filed in the US Middle District Court of Florida, was assigned to Judge John Badalamenti.

Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/naplesnews.com. Contact her at 239-213-6091.

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